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Forecasters downplay predictions

BY ADRIAN SAINZ AND JEFF AMY Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Miss. - Ruth Bennett died clutching the last child left at her day care center as a tornado wiped the building off its foundation. A firefighter who came upon the body gently pulled the toddler from her arms.

"It makes you just take a breath now," said next-door neighbor Kenneth Billingsley, who witnessed the scene at what was left of Ruth's Child Care Center in this logging town of 6,600. "It makes you pay attention to life."

Bennett, 53, was among at least 34 people killed in a two-day outbreak of twisters and other violent weather that pulverized homes from the Midwest to the Deep South. The child, whose name was not released, was alive when she was pulled from Bennett's arms and was taken to a hospital. Her condition was not known.

As crews in Mississippi and Alabama turned from search-and-rescue efforts to cleanup, forecasters began to downplay their initially dire predictions of a third round of deadly twisters Tuesday. Meterologists said the storm system had weakened substantially by evening, although some tornado watches and warnings were still in effect for isolated areas.

In North Carolina, the National Weather Service reported tornado touchdowns in five counties Tuesday, but the twisters caused only moderate structural damage to homes and toppled some trees. Two cities in the state reported extensive flooding from the storm system. No injuries were reported.

One of the hardest-hit areas in Monday evening's barrage of twisters was Tupelo, Miss., where a gas station looked as if it had been stepped on by a giant.

Francis Gonzalez, who also owns a convenience store and Mexican restaurant attached to the service station, took cover with her three children and two employees in the store's cooler as the roof over the gas pumps was reduced to aluminum shards.

On Tuesday, the growl of chain saws cut through the otherwise still, hazy morning in Tupelo. Massive oak trees, knocked over like toys, blocked roads. Neighbors helped one another cut away limbs.

"This does not even look like a place that I'm familiar with right now," said Pam Montgomery, walking her dog in her neighborhood. "You look down some of the streets, and it doesn't even look like there is a street."

By the government's preliminary count, 11 tornadoes - including one that killed 15 people in Arkansas - struck the nation's midsection Sunday, and at least 25 ravaged the South on Monday, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center said.

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